Monday, February 2

Excavating Egypt

Last week I finally had a chance to drive the two hours or so down to San Bernardino and check out the "Excavating Egypt" exhibition at California State University's Fullerton Art Museum. Originally I was supposed to go with Eric and our friend Kandace, but Saturday morning Eric woke up feverish with the flu. Since I work most weekends, this was my last chance to see the exhibit, so Kandace and I stuck with our plans. Not to worry, we left Eric well-supplied with cold medicine, cough drops, and tissues. (He's feeling much better today, in fact, so hopefully he's over the worst of it.)

I had never been to the Fullerton Art Museum before, despite its boast that it has the largest collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities west of the Mississippi. (Really?) It is a very small university museum, and obviously isn't used to a lot of traffic from visitors--the museum parking lot only has eight or so parking spaces marked "visitor." The dinky venue aside, I was looking forward to seeing the exhibit, which features finds made in the 19th century by pioneering Egyptologist William Flinders Petrie. The artifacts are on loan from the Petrie Museum of University College London, which houses over 80,000 ancient Egyptian and Sudanese artifacts.

The majority of the museum's collection was formed from artifacts Petrie (above) excavated during his prolific career in Egypt. He excavated at dozens of sites, and the Petrie collection is distinguished today as one of the most important Egyptological collections in the world, not just because of the quality of the collection, but because most of the objects come from documented archaeological contexts. As I tell visitors almost every day, many artifacts in museums across the world do not have documented archaeological contexts. Since most objects in the Petrie's collection do have such a context, we know so much more about them than we would otherwise because we know exactly where they were found.

So, you can see why I was looking forward to seeing this particular exhibit. The objects did not disappoint. They were some of the best ancient Egyptian artifacts I've seen outside of Egypt. I enjoy the sculptures and reliefs, but I have to say I'm usually most taken with the objects that represent the trappings of daily life--personal things someone wore or used so long ago. Jewelry, games, cosmetic jars, dolls, and so on. I have to say, though, the bronze pieces really caught my eye. I'm so used to seeing bronzes with the typical dark patina of centuries or green bronze disease, I was definitely impressed with the excellent condition of many of the bronze artifacts in this exhibit. You gotta love that dry desert climate. The flask below was my favorite bronze piece. It was made from a single sheet of bronze, hammered into shape. The workmanship is amazing--the metal was hammered into 1/40th of an inch in thickness.

As much as I enjoyed my chance to see these artifacts, the museum educator in me was front and center as I wandered through the galleries. The first thing that struck me was the text panels, which were loaded with text. That's what they are for, of course, but most of the time you want to limit the length as much as you can. People are not going to stand for five minutes in front of a text panel to read it. In fact, most visitors never read beyond the first paragraph. Text panels and labels can be great points of contention, so I'm just going to chalk these up to the fact that this exhibit had a very academic bend to it and was specifically intended for university audiences. The other two things that caught my attention have to do with the issue of display.

One choice that confused me was displaying a lion head "water spout" high up on the wall, way above the display cases. I get the idea--display it high up just as it would have been if it were in context on the edge of a temple roof. The problem is, a lot of visitors simply missed it because it was so high up, and even if you saw it you could not see it well because it was so high. Also, I spent a lot of time looking at that lion head, and I saw a solid sculptured head with no sign of any hole to act as a spout. The identification seems based on comparison with another lion head spout excavated at Lisht. I'm still not sure this means this lion head needs to be identified as a water spout. The photo below is not that great because there was very little light available, but it gives you an idea of how the lion was displayed in the gallery.

Kandace tried to take a picture of me pointing to the lion head, but there wasn't much light.

The other display choice that raised an eyebrow for me had to do with the one mummy portrait in the exhibition. If you take a look at the image below, you will see the protruding display case is surrounded by a wooden picture frame. Okay, so because this is a "portrait" it needs a picture frame? It's an amusing little addition, but unnecessary and misleading.

Overall, I definitely think the quality of the objects outweighs any negatives, and I'm glad I had the chance to see them before they leave town. And, I'll always be a fan of Petrie's archaeological legacy. I mean, this was a guy who lived in a tomb and was rumored to have stripped naked to explore cramped tomb shafts. That's a kind of hardcore archaeology that will never be again. He also anticipated the significant need to squeeze every bit of information out of even the smallest scrap of evidence from the past before it became the modern archaeological standard.

"The past is vanishing before our modern [eyes, it] changes yearly and daily. There is ever less and less to preserve and everything possible must be garnered before it has entirely vanished. The present has its most serious duty to history in saving the past for the benefit of the future." Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie


  1. And that was *after* I lightened the picture and screwed with the contrast. The lighting really was awful in there.

  2. It was a valiant effort, but the forces of darkness were too strong. :)